By Melanie Wiseman
Reprinted with permission.
Original credit goes to:
Life After 50 October 2020 issue, The Voice of Adults 50+ in the Pikes Peak Region
A daughter’s search for compassion amid a pandemic
Until recently, the COVID-19 pandemic was a mere inconvenience. I still biked, hiked, camped and enjoyed small socially distanced gatherings with friends. Everything changed when my mother’s health suddenly and rapidly declined in a Wisconsin independent living apartment 1,200 miles away.
My siblings and I were now among the thousands of families being kept away from fragile loved ones when they needed us most. Our quarantined parents were prisoners to the virus.
Health is wholeness
On March 11, two days after celebrating my dad’s 94th birthday, their independent living facility went into lockdown. My plane ticket to visit the following week would have to wait. Never did I imagine I’d be flying out two months later, just to watch my mother through her bedroom window with tears in her eyes, arms outstretched, longing to give me a hug.
Even though it was meant to protect residents’ health, the quarantine did the opposite. With her heart weakening, lack of movement and exercise meant fluid filled Mom’s legs and around her lungs, and tethered her to an oxygen machine.
Meals were brought to my parents’ room, and all in-person socialization with friends and family came to a halt. They became depressed and anxious, with little to look forward to. The only people they had personal contact with were masked facility staff.
“Health is wholeness—the total wellbeing of the person,” said Dad. “There is physical pain and there is emotional pain.”
Their wholeness was not being cared for. Isolation took away any quality of life my mom had left. Each time I called my parents would say, “At least we have each other. We think of all the people going through this alone.”
Searching for compassion
By the time Dad ultimately said, “Come home,” I had just over a week with Mom before she died. Each day, I pleaded with the facility director to be able to physically and freely hug, hold and comfort them both. Every day I was told, “No.”
From behind windows, screens and iron fences, I watched as my mom, now a shadow of herself, was comforted by those who were strangers to me. These “strangers” then went home to their families and friends, while my mom’s own family stood outside.
My father was by my mother’s side at all times, exhausted, but extremely attentive. His being there was our only consolation as anger and frustration built up among us children and grandchildren.
Fortunately, Mom knew what was happening and was at peace, which was the greatest gift she could give us. In return, we wanted to grant her deepest desire: the ability to hold her family. We’d been denied for months; surely at the end of her life, compassion would prevail over rules.
But even as a hospice team was called, we were denied entry. The facility told us that when our mom was “actively dying”—within 48 hours of her death—family would be allowed to visit two at a time. But they never called it. We did.
After we’d visited Mom in the morning on June 11, my sister, her daughter and I recognized the nearness of my mom’s passing and pressed harder than ever to be allowed to spend time with her. The three of us were finally given one hour that afternoon. We used that hour to its fullest, taking off our masks when staff left the room and watching Mom light up like a Christmas tree as she saw our smiles and faces. We listened closely to her fading voice and reminisced over photos of her life growing up on a farm in Michigan.
“When I was a young person, I thought a lot about what my purpose was, and then I met your dad, and I knew. We would do it together,” she said. “I no longer have a purpose, but now it’s you kids’ and grandkids’ turn to take over for us.”
When the hour was up, my sister and I each gave her a hug and told her how much we loved her. As we went to leave, she quietly called me back.
“I need another hug,” she said. I tearfully complied at length and once again we told each other, “I love you.”
I assured her we would see her tomorrow morning. But there was no tomorrow. My mother, beautiful both inside and out, died in her sleep that night.
The price of protection
Why, you might ask, would I choose to share such a personal experience? Because this story is happening every day, all over the world. Facilities are “protecting” people from the virus, but at what cost?
The distressing end to lives from COVID or amid its restrictions is hard to fathom, but it’s very real. Families who just want to hold their dying loved ones face a moment in history where isolation reigns and liability overrules compassion.
I strongly believe that my mom’s death came quicker, not from heart failure, but from a broken heart. Did she die from COVID? No. Did she die much sooner because of it? Absolutely. My father agreed that the isolating confinement caused by the pandemic both rushed her death and was an undeniably cruel way to die.
“It’s time for me to grieve and adjust after falling in love with your mom every day for the last 72 years,” Dad said. “There isn’t a normal way to do that in this current situation.”
Sadly, the quarantine cruelty continues. The day after my mother died, Dad went back to being alone in their apartment, with no visitors. He FaceTimes with his children and grandchildren, but it’s no substitute for stimulating contact and social communication. He can’t leave the facility except for essential appointments. A “prisoner” once again.
In loving memory of Wilma Katherine Baumbach July 27, 1930 – June 12, 2020